When is it good enough?
Why risk-taking is an inherent and critical part of the creative process
Welcome to a special bonus edition of Story Cauldron, the newsletter where I talk about Story and storytelling and everything connected to these concepts. In this piece, I look at the fear that comes with putting our creative work into the public eye and some of the false stories we tell ourselves.
As a writer—or any creative person, such as a painter, architect, graphic designer, or gardener—can tell you, making the thing is only half the battle. The other half is deciding when (or if!) that endeavor is complete and can be shared with the world.
It’s hard to know when something is done. When should you stop working on it? Is it, you know, good enough to share with others?
I was confronted with this question earlier this week when my new story The Favor Faeries launched on the new platform Kindle Vella. For a couple of days, no one was reading it and I wondered, is it good enough? Maybe the first few chapters aren’t strong enough. Perhaps the artwork is wrong. Should I redo it and republish it? What if I post the second book in September and no one has finished the first one?
Of course, it was new project jitters, and a casual glance at any one of a number of Facebook groups dedicated to Vella will quickly show you that I’m not alone in my angst. Dozens of threads are bemoaning abject failure (after four days on a brand-new platform).
But let’s face it. It’s flat-out terrifying to put a new project out there. If there isn’t instant success (and let’s face it, there almost never is), our brains start working overtime. We start telling ourselves that maybe our work wasn’t ready to go public. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. And of course, many artistic types will then make the seemingly logical leap from “maybe that story wasn’t good enough” to “maybe I’m not good enough” (as a writer or even as a human being).
We equate our work with our own being, and measure our success as a human by how well our creative work is received in the world.
Let’s take a moment to look at why we tell ourselves crazy stuff like that, and consider ways to approach sharing our work and handling feedback in a way that’s beneficial and productive and doesn’t involve heartbreak.
Don’t take it personally
Our creative work comes from deep inside us. It’s filled with our emotions and memories and ideas. An architect might design a house based on a place she went as a child. A painter might choose to do a still life with peonies because that was his grandmother’s favorite flower. A writer might craft a story based loosely on her own experiences and fill it with characters that she’s fallen in love with.
What this means is that we might think of our work as if it’s an extension of our soul. When we share it, it’s as though we’ve plucked it out from deep within us and then cast it out into the world for all to see. If the work is meaningful to us, we will feel vulnerable when others explore it and interact with it.
And if someone doesn’t like it—or even worse—ignores it, it’s as if they are passing a judgment on us.
“What do you mean, my painting is ugly?”
“How can you not think this story is the most interesting thing you’ve ever read?”
“Look at this thing I created with hours and days and months of my life. How can you pass it by without even a second glance!”
Failure is very difficult to not take personally. But we have to remember that if someone doesn’t like our story or our painting, that doesn’t mean they have an opinion about us as people. It’s important that we reframe the conversations in our head and remind ourselves that critics may make it sound personal, but it (almost) never is personal.
Sharing work is always perilous
You might assume that professional writers and artists don’t worry about negative feedback, that somehow they learn to handle critics ‘like a pro.’ But you’d be wrong.
I know for a fact that some famous authors read every comment on Amazon and obsess over the negative ones. Some novelists suffer massive writer’s block because they fear they can never meet the success of their previous work. And nearly everyone who puts their work for sale on the Internet will obsess over sales figures, open rates, or views—even if they have no plans to do anything with that information.
And dealing with rejection is a part of being an artist. Monet, Van Gogh, and Vermeer are three painters who struggled with rejection and suffered in poverty as they created their works, as no one saw value in what they produced. Monet was fortunate enough to sell some of his paintings while he was alive, but Van Gogh and Vermeer never knew their artwork’s eventual success.
Meanwhile, many famous authors had just as rough a time. An editor told H.G. Wells that The War of the Worlds was “an endless nightmare,” and suggested that he thought “the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.” Louisa May Alcott was told to “Stick To Teaching,” while a publisher said to Ernest Hemingway, “I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive.”
Did Wells, Alcott, or Hemingway ever consider giving up writing? Maybe. Fortunately, however, they persevered.
Dare to take chances
You’ve spent the past ten or twenty years writing your novel. You’ve written a dozen songs you play over and over to your cats. You spend every weekend in the garage painting. It’s fun, but you wonder why you bother. No one has ever read/heard/seen your work. And who would want to, anyway? It’s probably not good enough, right?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
We all struggle to recognize the value of our own work. This internal battle often comes from when we compare ourselves to others we deem more successful, and feel like we can’t ever measure up.
This internal competition can be maddening, and is what Ira Glass calls “the gap.” We know what we like, and we can recognize the genius in other people’s work, but we never think we’re as good as others.
Do you know how you find out if your work is good enough? You have to take the biggest risk you’ve ever taken before.
You need to put it out there and see what happens.
Don’t make me do it!
I get it. It’s hard. Really really hard. What if you share your book/jewelry/photos/paintings and people hate everything?
Here’s the honest truth of the matter. Someone will hate it. Guaranteed.
Some people hate Picasso’s paintings. Some hate Van Gogh’s. Lots of people hate Hamilton and Marvel superheroes and The Sopranos. I am confident that in a few minutes of Googling I could find long diatribes written by detractors of each of them.
But at the same time, millions of people love those things and the work gives them joy. And while I can’t promise you millions of people will like yours, someone will.
So how do I know if it’s good enough?
Right, so we’re back to that question. Is it done? Like, really really done? Is it ready? Should you publish that story on Kindle Vella? Should you apply to hang your artwork in a gallery or coffee shop? Should you submit something to a contest?
How will you ever know if you don’t try?
Don’t hide your work forever. Take a risk and give it a chance to shine.
You can start by getting peer critiques from fellow writers or other artists. Put it up on Facebook and ask for feedback. Share clips or excerpts or ideas. See what resonates.
But don’t ask your parents or your significant other, because they love you and will almost never tell you what you really need to hear.
Sooner or later you’ll get the confidence you need. Maybe the art isn’t perfect, but maybe, just maybe, it’s good enough.
As a reminder, you can subscribe to Story Cauldron, so you never miss another article.
A free subscription allows you to receive my regular weekly articles (like this one!) right to your inbox. But a paid subscription will also grant you access to my ongoing story The Favor Faeries. A paid subscription also means you support my writing and want to help me continue to produce it.
Between now and September 17, 2021, if you sign up for the paid version, you’ll even get a special deal—$4 a month or $40 for the year.